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Very Scared People

By (August 1, 2009) One Comment


David Moody
Thomas Dunne Books, 2009

Zombie books and zombie movies have a predatory relationship, but it’s not always easy to tell who’s devouring who. George Romero brought the undead to the world’s notice on the (low-budget) big screen, but it may be Max Brooks, son of film legends Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft and author of the bestsellers World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide, who’s most responsible for their current revival. Zombie material has since appeared in faceless droves, often going straight to DVD or mass market –- it tends to be that extra cross-promotional power that makes one work stand out. Few have learned this lesson better than Guillermo Del Toro, who has directed the provocatively weird films Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone, recently wrote the horror novel The Strain (co-wrote, actually, although, zombie-like, no one can remember who the other guy is).

Del Toro has now purchased the film rights to David Moody’s book Hater, which supplies added intrigue to what at first seems like a fairly innocuous read. Hater takes place in a typical town that, though never specified, seems to be in England or Ireland. Danny McCoyne lives a painfully dull provincial life there: he works an office job for the agency that collects parking fees and has a rocky relationship with his wife and three young unplanned children. Yes, he’s that cranky, beaten down middle-management shlub who has been made into such a satisfying staple sociopaths in the horror genre. But that’s not quite Danny’s fate in Hater. We first meet him on his walk to work. It’s a day just like any other day –- until a man randomly attacks an elderly woman with an umbrella. And this isn’t reminiscent of some harmless bird-shooing –- no, the man repeatedly stabs the old lady in her abdomen until she’s very certainly, very viscerally dead.

Hater centers on an outbreak of acts of singular violence such as this umbrella attack. At first, the attacks are random: a teenager attacks and kills her best friend during a walk in the woods, a construction worker murders his foreman at a jobsite. It all seems arbitrary and unrelated, but as the frequency of the incidents increases, Danny and everyone else in his world begin to suspect that there is something else going on. The attackers come to be called “Haters,” and everyone is a potential assailant. Moody makes the increasing sense of unease readily believable:

There’s a strange atmosphere everywhere today. Everyone seems to be on edge. No one seems certain about anything anymore. Everybody seems to be thinking twice about everything they do and worrying more than normal about what everyone else is doing. Our ordinary lives and the day-to-day routine suddenly feel more complicated than they did before and yet I’m still not sure if anything’s actually changed.

The book is mostly a narrative told by Danny; however there are vignettes scattered throughout the first half that tell the story of a single attack from the eyes of the attackers. In each instance, the attacker is killing one specific person out if what they think is self defense. For no apparent reason, a single target causes them overwhelming fear and homicidal hatred. As you read on, Moody does a gripping job of describing the mentality of the hunted, terrified everyman. After all, these aren’t psychopathic serial killers who take delight in mutilating their fellow countrymen at random. The attackers are killing only because they truly believe that they need to kill in order to save themselves from their target. Ironically, there is a kind of desperate courage about the deranged attackers, who are pathologically convinced that they’re confronting blood-thirsty maniacs. Moody rigs his scenes so that the reader identifies strongly with the regular people killing monsters to save themselves -– only in reality their target poses no actual threat, and they themselves have become the monsters.

Naturally, as these attacks become more and more frequent, the outraged counter-attacks begin. For every random attack carried out by a Hater, there is usually a vigilante takedown of that Hater at the hands of civilians who think they are protecting society by taking action themselves. It’s these attacks and retaliations that best showcase Moody’s sensitivity, his purpose: righteous violence finds its polarities between the Haters and the avengers. Here is one vividly depicted retaliation against a Hater:

The beating lasts for less than a minute. They surround him and batter him from every side and every angle kicking his face, his kidneys, his chest, his balls, and stamping on his head, his kneecaps and his outstretched hands. Once the frenzied attack is over the man’s breathless assailants step back, leaving the twitching body on the ground in full view…Lizzie is holding my arm, gripping me so tight that it hurts. I can’t take my eyes off the dark mound at the side of the road. Who was it? What had he done? If he really was a Hater then he deserved everything he got.

Here the violent mob is made to seem just as ruthless as the Hater. Both are attacking another person out of fear, both are motivated by self-preservation, and both kill their targets. Violence, in Hater, depends on a sense of self-justification, and once the cycle begins it seems oppressively impossible to check.

While the cover of this book is blood-spattered, and while the plot involves ordinary people becoming monstrosities, Hater is not technically about zombies. It has similar motifs, but it is no more a book of the undead than 28 Days Later is a zombie movie. The Haters do not have super human strength, they don’t attempt to eat their victims, and they are capable of rational thought and conversation. They’re just very scared.

But Hater does function similarly to other zombie movies because of its sophisticated social criticism. Zombie cinema is known for delicately questioning our society’s shortcomings and obsessions through satire. The zombies who look just like shoppers wondering through the Monroeville Mall in Dawn of the Dead or the Vietnam-like zombie footage in Night of the Living Dead have become iconic images of Swiftian satire. George Romero began his career using a nuanced touch to his social criticism, and that is one of the reasons that his early films are so successful. Moody uses very similar themes to question the alarmist and scapegoating tendencies of media and the government without turning the reader away by making the novel too preachily political. (Unfortunately, if you have seen either of Romero’s latest zombie films, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead you have seen examples of social criticism gone wrong; the subtlety of Romero’s earlier criticisms is completely absent; the films dissolve into boilerplate screed against cable news and George W. Bush, lacking only a news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen restating its grievances.)

Hater skirts the same territory but stops short of openly blaming the media for misinformation; Moody would prefer that you come to your own conclusions. Throughout the book, for instance, Danny watches TV to get updates on the recent outbursts of violence. At the start the reports are sensationalized and more in line with the media we see today:

They always exaggerate things on TV, don’t they? They’ve been saying something about an increase in the number of violent incidents being reported, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been an increase in the number of incidents actually taking place, does it?

As the book progresses the broadcasts get less informative, and are slowly filled with talking heads and their canned “no need to panic” messages:

The news is running on a loop again. It seems to be just the headlines on repeat, introduced by these two presenters. There’s no sports or entertainment or business news anymore, and the reports I’m watching are all similar to those we’ve seen before. No explanations, just basic information. Occasionally the cycle is interrupted when one of the newsreader interviews someone in authority. I’ve seen politicians, religious leaders, and others being interviewed over the last few days. They can all talk the talk and most of them know how to play to the camera, but none of them can disguise the fact that they seem to know as little about what’s happening as the rest of us.

Moody cannily integrates the absurd elements of mainstream news into his frightening premise. The recent eruption of panic and misinformation over Swine Flu lends bitter plausibility to the media’s likely responses to a spate of murderous rampages in middle-America.

And there’s another similarity to the more well-done zombie films that are Hater’s obvious inspiration: the book can be genuinely terrifying. I love reading horror and watching most horror movies because they delight me. It can be really satisfying to watch an over-sexed teenager be ripped into by a fire poker, or watch a group of cenobites torture a guy with bad 80’s hair (well it can … really …). Hater in unabashed in its relish of gruesome horror scenes, but those scenes are given an added stomach-churning vividness because the character, in their prosaic cubicle-dwelling grumpiness, are so strongly relatable. The most terrifying moment in Hater involves a routine interaction at Danny’s office. Working at the parking fee collection office, Danny is accustomed to frenzied people bursting in to the office, waving their tickets in the air. After the Hater outbreak, one such episode occurs. A man comes in, irate that his car has been ticketed, and demands that the ticket be taken back. As Danny watches this man’s blood pressure swell, he begins to wonder: is he a Hater, or does he simply hate?

I still can’t move. He’s still shouting but I’ve stopped listening to what he’s saying. I stare into his face and slowly shuffle farther back until I’m pressed up against the wall. Is this man really a Hater? Oh Christ, is he about to explode and kill us both? What the hell do I do? Do I run? The man looks at Hilary and then at me. I try not to make eye contact but I can’t help it. I can see Hilary out of the corner of my eye. She’s shaking like a leaf. She’s usually rock hard but she’s as frightened as I am. I have to do something.

Without knowing how the interaction is going to end, Danny stands there wondering if he should strike first or wait to be attacked. Will there be an attack at all, or will the man leave with his ticket in peace? Moody plays out this scene (and so many others just like it in their mixture of normalcy and paranoia) perfectly. And as readers live in this and other terrifying scenes, they have the added pleasure of trying to envision how Guillermo Del Toro is going to set it to the big screen.

Deirdre Crimmins lives in Boston, wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero, and works too much.

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